Guest Blog on Foot Speed and Agility

By October 12, 2010 Guest Blogs

Developing Foot Speed and Agility
Michael Boyle

A couple of threads on the StrengthCoach forum got me thinking about the question of foot speed and athletes. I can’t tell you how often I hear a parent or a coach ask, “How can I improve my son’s/daughter’s/ athlete’s foot speed or agility?” It seems everyone always wants the shortcut and the quick fix. The better question might be “Do you think you can improve foot speed?” or maybe even the larger question, “Does foot speed even matter?”

That begs the larger question, “Does foot speed have anything to do with agility?” I know coaches or parents reading this are asking, “Is this guy crazy?” How many times have we heard that speed kills? I think the problem is that coaches and parents equate fast feet with fast and quick feet with agile. However, fast feet don’t equal fast any more than quick feet equal agile. In some cases, fast feet might actually make an athlete slow–often I see fast feet as a detriment to speed. In fact, some of our quick turnover guys, those who would be described as having fast feet, are very slow off the start.

The problem is fast feet don’t use the ground well to produce force. Fast feet might be good on hot coals, but not on hard ground. Think of the ground as the well from which we draw speed. It is not how fast the feet move, but rather how much force goes into the ground. This is basic action-reaction physics. Force into the ground equals forward motion. This is why the athletes with the best vertical jumps are most often the fastest. It comes down to force production. Often coaches will argue the vertical vs. horizontal argument and say the vertical jump doesn’t correspond to horizontal speed, but years of data from the NFL Combine begs to differ. Force into the ground is force into the ground. In spite of what Brett Contreras may say, vectors don’t seem to matter here. The truth is parents should be asking about vertical jump improvement, not about fast feet. My standard line is “Michael Flatley has fast feet, but he doesn’t really go anywhere. If you move your feet fast and don’t go anywhere, does it matter? It’s the old “tree falling in the woods” thing.

The best solution to slow feet is to get stronger legs. Feet don’t matter. Legs matter. Think about it this way: If you stand at the starting line and take a quick first step but fail to push with the back leg, you don’t go anywhere. The reality is that a quick first step is actually the result of a powerful first push. We should change the buzzwords and start to say “that kid has a great first push.” Lower body strength is the real cure for slow feet and the real key to speed and to agility. The essence of developing quick feet lies in single-leg strength and single-leg stability work… landing skills. If you cannot decelerate, you cannot accelerate, at least not more than once.

One of the things I love is the magic drill idea. This is the theory that developing foot speed and agility is not a process of gaining strength and power, but rather the lack of a specific drill. I tell everyone I know that if I believed there was a magic drill we would do it every day. The reality is it comes down to horsepower and the nervous system, two areas that change slowly over time.

How do we develop speed, quickness and agility? Unfortunately, we need to do it the slow, old-fashioned way. You can play with ladders and bungee cords all you want, but that is like putting mag wheels on an Escort. The key is to increase the horsepower, the brakes and the accelerator. I think the answer for me is always the same. I wrote an article last year called “Is ACL Prevention Just Good Training?” In much the same way, development of speed, agility and quickness simply comes down to good training. We need to work on lower body strength and lower body power and we need to do it on one leg.
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I love ladder drills. They provide excellent multi-planar dynamic warm-up. They develop brain-to-muscle connection and are excellent for eccentric strength and stability. We do less than five minutes of ladder drills, one or two times a week. I don’t believe for a minute that the ladder is a magic tool that will make anyone faster or more agile, however I do believe it is a piece of the puzzle from the neural perspective. People waste more than five minutes on biceps curls, but we have long debates about ladder drills.

These are also a great tool to show to coaches who want “foot speed.” Sometime it’s easier to “yes” them than to argue with them. Give a guy with “bad feet” a jump rope and you get a guy with bad feet and patella tendonitis.

PSS- I have never used the term “speed ladder.” We always call it an agility ladder if we call it more than the ladder.

16 Comments

  • Matias says:

    Wow. I was just thinking about this after my soccer game last night. I told my girl that I’m faster in the long sprints, but I need to get quicker in the short movements. The single leg work makes sense for my particular situation. I’m looking forward to reading everybody’s input.

    P.S. This time difference got me thinking all philosiphical and Einstein-like. I’m typing this at 11:20 PM 10/11/10 and the article was posted at 6 am the day after. Hahaha…what a geek.

  • BN says:

    Great post! I totally agree!! I’ve done a lot of speed programs and honestly what ‘s helped me the most is increasing my hip strength as well as my glute strength and activation. And because of the added hip strength and glute strength activation dunking a basketball is now easy whereas before it was a struggle.

  • mscottdpt says:

    Awesome to-the-point post. I do not deal with this question as much as you guys so, but it definitely comes up. A few points that I was thinking as I read this were:
    1. How do people expect to push their body if their feet aren’t on the ground?
    2. I have seen many people with quick feet, that just get in their own way. People still need to have the coordination (neural ability) to use “quick feet”. It’s like having a great tool, but not knowing how to use it.
    3. NFL linemen are huge, some might even say fat, but they have enormous lower extremity strength and power, and most of them have great footwork and great speed as well. Pefect example was Warren Saap. At like 295lbs he ran a 4.7-4.8 40yrd dash. Sure, not RB speed, but still faster than most of us could run it.
    4. Unless taking part in football as a WR/RB/DB, or track, people should start to focus more on acceleration due to typical sport demands.
    5. Physics.

    Power = work/time.
    Rearrange this to get time = work/power.
    Assuming that the work (force/distance) remains constant, the only way to make your time smaller (meaning you are getting faster) is to increase your power as Mike B said.

    or

    Power = Force x Velocty
    Velocity(speed) = Power/Force
    To increase velocity (or speed) if force (m*a) is constant, power must be increased.

    Either way you get the point.

    Always Evolve,

    Mike Scott, DPT

  • TJ says:

    Good post. I think the fact that strength is the basis of all movement sometimes escapes people.

    But…the single leg conclusion sounds a little suspect in my (yes, impertinent) opinion. Doubling an athlete’s squat or power clean is going to have a greater impact on his entire body than doubling his weighted pistol squat. Not that it’s an either/or situation. I think there’s plenty of room for both approaches.

  • Tim Egerton says:

    “Michael Flatley has fast feet, but he doesn’t really go anywhere.”

    Brilliant – I think I will use that the next time I am asked about ‘fast feet drills’.

    Tim

  • Matias says:

    I just hiked/climed a 3100 ft mountain. The DOMS on my legs says it qualifies for single leg work.

  • Jeff says:

    Good article! I am newer to this stuff than some others here, so how do you explain guys with big squats with little vertical/speed vs. Guys who can jump out of the gym but can’t squat or never squat. Never heard many NBA guys with large squats but 35″ verticals are common. Thoughts?

    • TJ says:

      I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, despite not being an expert.

      I think power to weight ratio ultimately determines your ability to apply force to the earth and move your body quickly. NBA stars who don’t squat have probably developed the ability to apply great force for jumping through the inherited gift of naturally high amounts of type 2b muscle fibres, thousands of hours spent running and jumping and performing exercises that aren’t squats but will contribute to development. Andy Bolton (you know, Mr.1000lb deadlift) has said that he managed 500lbs the first time he squatted, thanks only to playing rugby and sprinting as a youth. Some people are just damned lucky that way.

      The question for me is, how much better would those NBAers jump if they added 50% to their squats?

      As for the big squatters who can’t run and jump so well, I don’t know. I suppose suited powerlifters who never squat below parallel, are overweight and never practice running and jumping are not going to do so well. Lean olympic lifters (or powerlifters) who routinely front squat with heavy weights and thus develop glutes of steel are going to be quick and pretty springy. It’s worth looking for stills of Oly lifters jumping for joy after making a big lift to see how much of an impact this has on jumping. They usually look like they’re flying.

      As for speed, Tyson Gay has said he squatted 400lbs (in 2007) at 165 body weight. My humble guess is that if he could only squat 250 at the same weight then we wouldn’t have heard of him.

  • Rich says:

    This is a reply I posted on Strength Coach to a thread on this article. The reference to the Cressey link is in regards to his comments on Kelly Bagget’s new product. My intention was not to be a contrarian but just to point out that this notion, while not anything new, certainly is important because it identifies a problem in the training industry:

    A few thoughts:

    Can’t help but get this off my chest…this is info that I was first exposed to back in 1997-98 at Charles Poliquin’s seminars. It was further cemented in the early 2000’s upon reading some of Charlie Francis’ thoughts.

    For the record, I certainly made extensive use of the Speed Dynamics-inspired stick drills in the early 90’s. Looking back, all I think it did was force athletes to move in an unnatural way.

    I think this article, along with some of Eric Cressey’s comments in the link provided, shed much needed light on a big problem that exists in training centers, and that is the development of a fast-food like mentality. Let’s have kids do some cool-looking drills with ladders, rubadubba rocket belts, and other gizmos. After that, throw them up on a treadmill to run as fast as Usain and we’ll be an All-Scholastic in no time.

    I do think there exists a need to differentiate between the above scenario and attempting to teach someone to move more efficiently, hopefully reducing stress/injury potential.

    Unfortunately, creating buy-in to a program that emphasizes the basics and embraces the idea that development will take years, not 2 weeks, is not an easy sell.

    This takes me back to Charlie Francis’ thoughts: “…train all aspects and let things sort themselves out for the individual.” Also, playing the sport itself represents the ultimate in transfer of training.

    How does the LTAD windows of trainability factor into this discussion?

  • paul says:

    Hey Bret,

    Hilarious interview on t-nation about picking up women – love it!

    Out of curiosity, whats your 100m time? or 40yard? You say you hip thrust over 400 pounds and weigh over 200, respectfully. Obviously with that bulk your not breaking world records but i imagine you aint bad.

    Paul

  • Helloman,
    This is an excellent page for such a complicated subject to discuss.

    I look forward to reading many more excellent posts like these.

    Cheers

  • Brady says:

    I appreciate and agree with your thoughts on agility ladders. They are great in the right dosage, but I have found them most beneficial when paired with various other agility drills in an “obstacle course” or agility circuit. The focus needed to maintain body control when fatigued is something I feel gets overlooked often.

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